The Yellow Vests
Action will determine whether the Yellow Vests will create a setting equivalent to Mussolini’s 'Blackshirts’ or will create an echo in the continent.
Photograph: EPA-EFE/Etienne Laurent/AA
Seeds of doubt about the Yellow Vests protest were sown when French President Emmanuel Macron, on whom voters had consented bestow the presidency out of fear of Le Pen, said they were aiming to bring the right to power. As if it were not his own right-wing policies that were to blame for the tax adjustments and fuel price hike, the main trigger of the protests.
France’s large unions, not least the CGT, and the French Communist Party turned their noses up at this protest that sprang up from the Le Pen-voting countryside. Urban petty-bourgeois leftism, which, until the countryside poured into the Champs-Élysées at the weekend and gave the heart of the city the once over, labelled the movement petty bourgeois-rightist for its members’ anti-immigrant, sexist and nationalist rhetoric, scribbled and scrawled of the need to steer clear of these protests. Intellectuals from Turkey living in France said that this was nothing like Gezi and advised the Turkish left not to get excited! The French paid no heed to them. The protests expanded, taking in students, workers and inner-city working people.
Developments forced a change of attitude in the CGT and the French Communist Party, whose own engagement in class politics is a matter of debate, and, doing what Le Pen had done at the very outset, they came out in support of the protests.
It is true that these protests resemble neither Gezi, nor the Nuit debout protests in 2016 or the rebellion previously set off by black people in the suburbs. Nor does it resemble the protest in 1995 by the working class, which crowned its months-long resistance in glory when millions thronged into Paris, to trash the neoliberal Juppé Plan that condemned French working people to insecurity and futurelessness.
The years have passed by since all of these. In the intervening time, all impoverished sections of society have seen their losses augment as administrations have come and gone and under Macron. Just as the workers gave warning in 1995, today in the countryside around the capital we are encountering the devastating reaction of French people who are no longer able to maintain the status they once had occurring in a place where things have become intolerable. There is no explanatory power in trotting off that these elements are not anti-capitalist, do not raise slogans in opposition to neo-liberalism and the participants are foul-mouthed and vote for Le Pen. For, this is a conclusion that does not take account of the capacity for a force to have surprises in store regarding its initial demand once it has moved into action.
The reason for opposition to immigration, the return to traditional values, sexism and a fascist party increasing its vote in France is, in any case, the way left-wing or socialist-labelled or centre-right administrators have made people’s lives increasingly hellish.
In the end, the French also inhabit this world. It is natural for them to be swept up in the wind in which the people of the USA voted for a Trump who had marshalled pent-up grudges and Brazilians, who had rebelled against the left-liberal Dilma Rousseff administration in 2013, for Bolsonaro, and in which the fascist and right populist movements that are being installed into power one by one in other countries are attaining unexpected electoral support. As such, the Yellow Vests protest also has the potential to be a lever that carries the Le Pen movement to power.
However, it is not Le Pen or those who vote for her who are solely to blame for this course of events; the pride of place will be taken by the liberal French bourgeoisie which wittingly surrendered the French people to her even if Le Pen’s rise was not greatly to their taste. Followed by the French left that remained a spectator to the events.
Somehow, the left sees the actions of working people to be legitimate if they rebel over refined demands. With the masses who are rebelling against common-or-garden tax hikes and fuel price rises describing themselves as not conducting politics, their spouting anti-immigrant rhetoric is irritating. However, the workers who in 1905 carried the banner, “May God preserve our father the Tsar from the capitalists” were sexist, nationalist and superstitious until they staged the revolution. The workers who launched the metal strike by performing Friday prayer and took every opportunity to proclaim their opposition to the “Gezi crowd” but hung up placards in factory grounds that imitated Gezi’s cultural discourse brought a lily-livered union to its knees. Eighty per cent of the workers voted for nationalist-conservative parties. But, what they pulled off was a pretty “left-wing” action.
The moral of the story is that the masses start an action because they have had their fill, but it is the political goals which take shape as the movement progresses that determine what this action will transform into. With fascist Le Pen waiting on one wing with active support to embody and embrace the protest and fill her sails with the winds of resistance, for France’s accommodationist, hesitant and ex-left-wing parties and unions to prematurely react sneeringly at a movement with which they have made no transformational contact will not vindicate them in haughtily proclaiming, “We told you so” in response to the situation that subsequently emerges.
With the rebellious French working people having apparently now secured acceptance of part of their demands, necessary action that is not taken will also determine whether this movement will create a setting equivalent to Mussolini’s blackshirts’ march on Rome, will fizzle out or will create an echo in the continent.